Local airport officials and community leaders are still working on attracting a second major carrier to Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field to reduce airfares.
Most advance-purchase tickets to major destinations have reached near parity with rival airports in Atlanta and Columbia during the past year, but officials say all tickets could get cheaper if competition could be increased.
"We've been successful in effecting better fares," Airport Manager Al McDill said. "There's still room for improvement."
The airport is currently served by one major carrier, Delta Air Lines; its commuter subsidiary, Atlantic Southeast Airlines; and USAir's commuter service, U.S. Airways Express.
Local business and community leaders, through a Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce "air service task force," have finished a proposal that they plan to market to three major airlines in the hope that at least one will come to Augusta.
"We're very close to making the presentations," said chamber President Jim West.
Officials believe an additional carrier would help reduce fares to destinations in the West and North, where there is currently great disparity in prices.
For example, a 14-day advance round-trip flight to Minneapolis costs nearly $200 more out of Augusta than Atlanta, according to a recent Bush Field market survey.
Extra competition, particularly if the airline is a discount carrier, could reduce the price of walk-up fares and other tickets commonly bought by business travelers flying on short notice, officials said.
For example, one discount carrier in Atlanta offers walk-up seats on flights to New York at $199 each way. That would cost $590 out of Augusta with the current carriers, a local travel agency said.
Air task force officials won't disclose the three airlines being targeted, but a recent air service study recommends Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines because they have hubs in Augusta's top northeastern destinations.
Although Augusta hasn't yet pitched its proposal to the three airlines, the airport's proposed $20 million terminal improvement plan has room for a new carrier.
The bond-funded project would be partially financed by the Federal Aviation Administration's airport improvement program fund and a $3 passenger facility charge it plans to impose by 2000.
The strategy of attracting a new carrier stemmed from recommendations by an air service study released more than a year ago that suggested Augusta was losing a third of its travelers to Atlanta and Columbia.
Another strategy recommended in that report was for Bush Field to hire a marketing director to promote the airport's use in the community. Mr. McDill said he has been interviewing candidates for the position and should have an individual hired within 30 days.
A marketing director would be responsible for increasing ridership at Bush Field by promoting the more competitive airfares and increased service that have been instituted during the past year.
The more people flying out of Bush Field, the better chance locals have of attracting a second major carrier, Mr. McDill said.
Passenger boardings have already increased almost 10 percent over the past two years, Mr. McDill said. The airport reported more than 218,000 people flew out of Bush Field in 1998.
He attributes the increase in boardings to the bankruptcy of budget carrier Air South in Columbia in 1997, which had been eroding local market share. However, better planes have attracted more business fliers, he added.
Last year, Atlantic Southeast Airlines began purchasing new 50-passenger Canadair Regional Jet models to replace its old 66-passenger ATR 72 turboprops.
Augusta so far has received one, which earlier this month was moved to a morning flight to accommodate business travelers making day trips to Atlanta.
"We've gotten a lot of response to that," said Sam Watts, ASA vice president of sales and marketing.
U.S. Airways Express also upgraded its fleet in Augusta. Last year it began replacing its old 36-seat Shorts aircraft, an Irish-made turboprop with a boxy, unpressurized cabin, with a combination of 19-seat Jetstream 32s and 37-seat DeHavilland Dash-8s, both turboprop planes which are faster and less noisy.
The company, which provides commuter service to U.S. Air's Charlotte hub, saw an immediate 12 percent increase in passenger boardings.
"As reliable as the Shorts were, they were not a very comfortable aircraft," said Chris Ellis, U.S. Airways Express Augusta station manager.
Damon Cline covers business issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3486.
The following is a comparison of ticket prices to Augusta's top five travel destinations based on a market study performed by the staff of Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field. The round-trip fares are based on a 14-day advance purchase and Saturday stay. The destination is followed by fares from Augusta, Atlanta and Columbia, respectively.
Washington (National Airport): $227, $184, $204
New York: $261, $224, $192
Newark, N.J.: $227, $224, $242
Chicago: $261, $164, $267
Atlanta: $173, N/A, $194
Source: Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field
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